Saturday, September 13, 2008

Little House on the Prairie

Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Although I'm a pretty emotional person, there have only been a few times over the past 18 months when something in a play or musical has reduced me to tears. Well, it happened again one week ago today, when I saw the new musical Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

There's a point near the end of Act I, after a bout of scarlet fever has left Mary Ingalls blind, when her younger sister Laura sings to her, "I'll be your eyes." It's such a moving scene, a beautiful duet between Kara Lindsay's Laura and Jenn Gambatese's Mary. For me, it was the most memorable part of lyricist Donna Di Novelli and composer Rachel Portman's score, and I was crying pretty much through the whole song.

In fact, it was so powerful, I was certain that "I'll be your eyes" would mark the end of Act I. But the show went on for what seemed like another half hour. As the mood on the McGuire Proscenium Stage became a more lighthearted one, I think some of the impact of that moment passed by a bit too quickly.

That kind of jarring transition sums up how I felt about Little House on the Prairie - there was lots to like, some truly soaring moments and terrific performances. But at the same time, there were a few things about the musical that just struck me as well, a bit out of place. (Although it's been awhile since I've read all the books so for all I know, they may be true to life.)

Beginning in 1932 with Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote nine books about her childhood, describing her family's travels across the Midwest, what it was like to be a girl in the 1870s and 1880s, her career as a schoolteacher and her marriage to Almanzo Wilder.

The musical covers roughly the events of the middle books, beginning with By the Shores of Silver Lake, when Charles and Caroline Ingalls and their four daughters, including 12-year-old Laura, leave Walnut Grove, Minnesota, for a homestead in the Dakota Territory.

In adapting the work for the stage, book writer Rachel Sheinkin has tinkered a bit with the specifics of Wilder's life. For example, in the books, Mary is stricken with scarlet fever and becomes blind in Minnesota, before the family travels to the Dakotas. And there are only three Ingalls girls in the musical: Mary, Laura and Carrie. Baby Grace has been written out entirely.

Now, I loved Sheinkin's previous book of a musical, for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Sheinkin, who won a Tony award, created a wonderful, quirky, distinct group of adolescents. Their stories were funny and moving and they seemed very true to life. So I was really curious to see how she would approach a group of 19th century adolescents.

In Little House on the Prairie, I don't think she's always successful in capturing the essence of Laura's character. Some things just struck me as out of place, a little too 21st century. While some of the dialog was taken right from the books, other lines seemed a little too modern. I think Sheinkin stumbles a bit in trying to capture a 19th-century sensibility.

For example, there's a scene in a schoolhouse when Laura's nemesis Nellie Oleson, a suitably snobbish Sara Jean Ford, makes fun of the Ingalls girls because they're barefoot and they don't have the proper slates to write on. Coming to her sister Carrie's defense, Laura acts up in a way that was so disruptive, it didn't quite seem believable.

First, I simply don't believe that Caroline Ingalls, who, after all, had been a teacher, would have sent her daughters to school without shoes and without the proper supplies. While Laura was high-spirited and headstrong at times, she was at heart a good girl, well brought up, and would never have been that obnoxious and bratty to an authority figure like a teacher.

There's another song, where the homesteaders, going through a difficult winter, sing "Uncle Sam, Where are you?" While I'm glad that the musical doesn't sugarcoat things, I just don't believe that 19th century homesteaders expected a government bailout.

But despite those qualms, there are lots of things Little House on the Prairie, directed by Francesca Zambello, does right - including depicting the harshness and deprivation and isolation of life in the Dakota Territory.

There's a scene in the beginning of the musical when all of the wagons are filled with pioneers heading west, aided by Adrianne Lobel's imaginative set design. You get a great sense of who they were, how they came from different backgrounds - the wagon train includes European immigrants and African-Americans - but they set off with the same great hopes and dreams. (I did chuckle, though, at a bit of Michele Lynch's choreography in that scene that reminded me of Fiddler on the Roof.)

And Kara Lindsay is so appealing, with a strong, soaring voice. Her Laura is spunky and daring, with an independent streak. I especially loved Lindsay's performance in Act II. At that point, the pigtails are gone and she's transformed into a young woman who becomes a teacher in an even more isolated town, to earn money to help send Mary to a college for the blind.

Even though she's grown up, with more adult responsibilities, Laura is still feisty, still a risk-taker, still an independent-minded person right up until the end of the musical. We see her at first rebuffing and then falling in love with Almanzo, played by a very boyish and charming and confident Kevin Massey. I liked the scene between the two of them in Almanzo's wagon, when Laura takes over the reins and wants to drive the horses as fast as they can go.

The rest of the cast is great, too. Maeve Moynihan is sweet as Carrie, Gambatese's more mature and focused Mary provides a nice counterpoint to Laura's impetuousness in Act I. And I loved Steve Blanchard's strong, forceful Pa. You can definitely tell that Laura gets some of her spunk from him. As Ma, I thought Melissa Gilbert hit the right tone but didn't have quite the same presence as some of the other performers, and her voice seemed a bit thin in her big song, "Wild Child." Still, like everyone else, I remember watching her as television's absolutely adorable Laura, aka "half-pint," and it was very cool to see her on stage.

Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her books to preserve the stories of her childhood, to show succeeding generations how much America had changed in her lifetime. And the musical does a good job of portraying what the lives of those pioneers were like. But what had the most impact on me were the things that are timeless - Laura's adventurous spirit and independence, her devotion to her family and to a sibling who needed her.


Dale said...

I didn't realize they'd made a musical of this. There's nothing worse than not being able to linger on a powerful moment. When that happens, I definitely feel robbed and propelled. If I'm going to be manipulated a little, let me sit in it for a moment!

Frontier Girl said...

Nice review, thanks for posting. Always interested in seeing how other people perceived things. :)

While I TOTALLY agree that Laura's behavior in the schoolroom was beyond ridiculous (funny, but ridiculous), I do have to say that the girls did indeed go barefoot during the warm months and the bit about needing first a slate, and then a slate pencil, is straight out of On the Banks of Plum Creek. What I disliked most about the school scene is that as the audience, your sympathies are with Miss Wilder -- in the book's version, your sympathies are totally with Carrie and Laura and you HATE Miss Wilder because she's so unfair. They really messed that up in the musical! Laura still says Miss Wilder was unfair to Carrie, but we saw NO unfairness whatsoever, the kids were brats and deserved to be sent home!

I agreed with mostly everything you said so I guess we had similar experiences with the musical as a whole. :)

Esther said...

Dale, do you mean that somehow you missed the 18 or so previous posts I wrote about the musical of Little House on the Prairie?! ;-)

And you know exactly how I felt. After that song, I really expected the lights to come up so I could wipe away my tears, turn to my theatergoing companions, and tell them how moved I was. Let the manipulation sink in a little deeper! I didn't have quite enough time to lose myself in the moment.

Esther said...

Thanks, frontier girl! I certainly enjoyed your review, too. And thanks so much for setting me straight on what was taken from the books.

I should have guessed that the schoolroom scene was from the book. It doesn't seem like something you'd make up out of whole cloth. But yeah, Laura's behavior did seem way over the top and out of place.

I thought it was pretty funny when she says she's going to "rock around the clock!" Uh, I think she's about 70 years too soon for that, unless Laura Ingalls Wilder invented rock 'n' roll!

But like I said, there was a lot I loved about the musical and I'm so glad I had a chance to see it.

Sarah B. Roberts said...

Is it pop music?

Esther said...

Hmmm, I'm not great at describing musical styles, but I wouldn't call it pop. Some reviewers have compared it to Disney, with a little bit of Aaron Copland and some old-time fiddle playing thrown in. To me, it sounded pretty much like a traditional Broadway musical style.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review! I saw the play last night and I simply can't get over how much I loved it. I'm so surprised at my level of enjoyment. I must have cried four separate times. I do agree with you on the "I'll Be Your Eyes" ending the act ... it should have, I agree. And yep, Frontier Girl is right about the girls going to school barefoot and without slate pencils way back in Plum Creek. I can see the need to smush things together for dramatic effect. But all in all I loved it. I have a huge crush on Kevin Massey, for one thing. I thought he made a wonderful Almanzo. And Mary, Laura, and Nellie were so pleasing. I told Kara after the show that she let me see Laura in a whole new way, and I never thought I'd say that.

Esther said...

Oh wow, I'm so glad you enjoyed the show! If it came near me on tour, I'd see it again. And I definitely agree about Kevin Massey. He was a very sweet Almanzo - so boyish and charming. What was it like to meet Kara afterward?

Anonymous said...

I just saw it too and agree with you on most points. But the Uncle Sam song, I interpreted to be about the "bet" the homesteaders made with Uncle Sam, not so much an asking-for-a-bailout song. Granted, I couldn't catch all the lyrics, so I may have missed something. But they played up the "wager" several times, both before and after the song.

Esther said...

Thanks for the comment, Amy! You may be right about "Uncle Sam." It's possible I misinterpreted the song. Hopefully there'll be a cast recording someday.